San Francisco Oyster Institution Swan Oyster Depot has been called out for racism. Will this change?

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There is general consensus on what happened around lunchtime on Friday August 20 at Swan Oyster Depot: After standing in line for about an hour and a half, a trio of customers started placing their orders. with Jimmy Sancimino, one of four brothers who operate the classic seafood counter on a bustling block of San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood. Sancimino walked away before Tin Dinh, a Vietnamese immigrant and San Francisco resident, and his group finished ordering, so they requested additional items with another employee. It was at this point that Sancimino, annoyed with customers for not ordering all their food from him, gestured towards Dinh’s group and repeatedly shouted “dim sum” to another member of the staff. Swan Oyster Depot team.

Erik Wideman, who worked at his family’s restaurant that day, told Dinh and his group that restaurant staff use the phrase when a customer tries to order with more than one employee.

“I felt very taken aback,” Dinh said of the experience, which he saw as a racial insult. “We just wanted to grab our food and go.” Although Dinh had lived in San Francisco for eight years, August 20 was his first visit to Swan Oyster Depot, a family-owned business that has skyrocketed nationwide in part to be one of the late Anthony’s favorite destinations. Bourdain in the city. Dinh’s sister was visiting, and because the experience seemed exciting and interesting, they didn’t mind waiting in Swan’s often long line. “The last thing I want is to make trouble,” he says. “But when he mentioned the word dim sum, that’s when he crossed a line for me.”

On Friday, Dinh opened up about his experience at Swan Oyster Depot in his Instagram Stories. But over the weekend, he says other people reached out to him to share their own negative experiences at the restaurant. It was then that Dinh, graphic designer, decided to create a Instagram post of 10 slides detailing his experience.

The slides – designed in a vivid cornflower blue with visual features such as arrows and quote inlays in photos of the restaurant – explain why Dinh felt his experience at Swan Oyster Depot was problematic and cited negative experiences from other people in the restaurant, using bold text to underline important information. Screenshots of one-star Yelp reviews on the restaurant have been pasted to support his argument that Swan Oyster Depot has a history of racist behavior towards its non-white clientele. In the last slide, he describes two call-to-action points with numbers – one, for Swan Oyster Depot to apologize for using racist language, and two, for the restaurant to follow safety rules. Appropriate COVID-19 to protect its staff and its future. visitors. Dinh, who has a master’s degree in fine arts, says he engages in the genre of PowerPoint activism which has become a staple on Instagram is similar to what he does in his daily work. “My approach to design is not just to create something pretty, but to tell a story in a thoughtful and conscious way,” he says.

This approach – taking complex social issues and breaking them down into a handful of easy-to-digest, highly visual graphics that can be shared widely on social media – has become the de facto way for influencers, artists, and celebrities to s’ engage in discussion. on sensitive or controversial subjects, even if some criticize practice as a way to make anti-racist work easier for whites to understand and participate in. It’s impossible to know how many accounts shared Dinh’s post, but on Wednesday afternoon he received over 11,000 likes and garnered over 700 comments.

Dinh and the restaurant owners disagree on whether the language used is problematic or not: Dinh wants the Sanciminos to recognize that even though staff use the term ‘dim sum’ as a shorthand when a customer attempting to order with more than one employee in doing so always falls within the realm of racist and harmful behavior. “All I ask is responsibility for their words,” he said. “It’s not just the intention, it’s the impact. This is where we all need to think about it and really have a conversation.

In a phone call with Eater on Tuesday, Kevin Sancimino, who works at the restaurant alongside his father Steve Sancimino and uncle Jimmy, said Dinh’s experience – having a waiter walk away mid-order and then visibly get angry with a customer – was “unacceptable”. But he defends the use of the term “dim sum”, claiming that it is not a racial affront but “part of what you might call our patois … It is something we say in reference to what does a colleague or a client. Like, ‘Hey, what? Are you making me dim sum? ‘ Since Dinh’s Instagram post, Sancimino says the restaurant has received angry calls and threats; On Monday, Yelp froze Swan Oyster Depot’s page after people started flooding it with star ratings.

Corn racial microaggressions – the subtle and often overlooked racial messages sent to people of color, often by whites unaware of their own privilege – should not be dismissed. This is why Dinh asks Swan Oyster Depot not only to apologize, but also to make an effort to understand the problem with the restaurant’s practice of using the term. “It’s one thing to apologize when you’ve been caught, but it’s another to understand why,” he says. Dinh says he felt even more motivated to speak out because of the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans, an unfair view of AAPI communities as a monolithic group of prosperous and nice immigrants who experience racism less often than other minorities.

“It’s a story that I think a lot of young Asians can relate to, but I also think that because we have a voice, because we have the same tools… it is all the more important to talk about this. kind of incidents, ”he said. “I’m not trying to be a role model to speak up, but I’m trying to show that it’s really important to use your platform. We must speak out against these behaviors, otherwise they will continue to occur. ”

Dinh is far from alone in believing that restaurateurs and chefs and the industry in general should be called in on issues ranging from unhealthy work environments to systemic racism in gastronomy. In 2020, rented the Chicago restaurant Fat Rice reversed after current and former employees “flooded social media with stories of abuse.” Now more than ever, customers expect accountability and change when problematic behavior comes to light – although it remains to be seen whether social media calls will result. significant change.

Swan Oyster Depot staff prepare for Saturday lunch service in 2014.
Daniel Krieger / Eater SF

Kevin Sancimino is adamant: “Swan Oyster Depot is not a racist organization. He says the restaurant, which his grandfather bought after WWII and which has been open for over a century, would not have survived the pandemic without its diverse clientele – “minorities and foreigners alike” enjoy the old-fashioned feel of the restaurant, he says. When asked if the restaurant would stop using the phrase that offended Dinh and his group on Friday, Sancimino said it had not been said at the restaurant since, although it had also not been said. communicated to staff that it was unacceptable to do so. For his part, Sancimino says he’s rethinking some of the other nicknames and languages ​​he uses when working at the restaurant. The tiny restaurant can look like an “assembly line coal mine,” he says, and customers can hear almost anything the staff say to each other.

Sancimino says he’s upset by the “exaggerated” “media circus” resulting from allegations of racism in his family’s business and worries, at least a little, about what this means for the longevity of Swan Oyster Depot. “Swan is an absolute anachronism. He’s trapped in time, ”he says. “I often wonder how long will this last. ”

Dinh says he thinks the restaurant had no meanness, but insists the behavior is problematic and an apology is appropriate. If the tables were turned, he says he would feel obligated: “It would be my responsibility as a decent human being and a business owner.


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